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In the market for a new trail running shoe? Over the past decade, we've tested close to 100 different models, with 19 of the market's best in this review. Our team of experts run trails year-round, from dreamy desert singletrack to muddy winter slogs. We test these shoes side-by-side to bring you the most comprehensive review of trail running shoes available. Our in-depth analysis focuses on protection, traction, comfort, stability, weight, and value and is backed up by hundreds of hours of real-world testing. Whether you like short lunch runs in nearby parks or adventures deep into the mountains, we can help you find the best pair of trail running shoes for your needs and budget.
Great underfoot protection that holds up over time
Excellent traction on all types of terrain
REASONS TO AVOID
Hard to get onto the foot
Must be worn with above-the-ankle height socks
Lace garage takes a bit of work
Salomon recently updated their Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3, which is possibly the most highly refined trail running shoe we've ever tested. We often lament the industry pressure to constantly update and change a shoe, particularly when a model we like gets altered for the worse. But sometimes, an already amazing shoe (like this one) is refined to an even higher standard, blowing our minds. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 is that shoe. Things that we didn't even know we wanted to be better — such as removing the protective side wings, adding an ankle collar to keep out debris, or creating an even snugger, refined fit — have now been improved. The versatile and sticky rubber traction, lightweight, and bomber PU foam underfoot remain. This is our favorite trail running shoe and one we delight in using for big days linking peaks, long runs over rough terrain, or ultra races.
The major downside to this shoe is the price. No detail is overlooked in its design, and the price tag reflects that attention. It is also slightly narrow for an ultra-distance shoe, although slightly wider than almost all of the other Salomon shoes we've worn. And while we love the new tongue design integrated with the debris collar, we find it takes some extra effort to put on. Overall, however, we aren't sure we've ever worn a trail running shoe that we loved more, and we are sincere with this praise. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 makes for an excellent long-distance shoe, as billed, but can serve well for shorter distances — for either standard trail missions or big days in the mountains. Save these for those special days, and don't wear them down by wearing them on pavement or by walking in them around town, and you'll likely be as psyched as we are.
The Brooks Divide 2 is a nearly ideal crossover shoe — it can comfortably run roads and trails and is a perfect entry point for those looking to start trail running more regularly. The price point is more accessible than other expensive options and allows a new runner to try out running off-road without jumping in feet first. The wide stance and lightweight mesh upper offer a "familiar" feel to many popular road running shoes, and the fit seems to accommodate many different foot shapes. This shoe favors comfort and stability over technical prowess, and a damp midsole provides a consistent experience over forest roads and well-graded singletrack. The ability to run pavement to the trailhead makes the Divide 2 a versatile option and only improves upon its already outstanding value.
The only time we felt truly uncomfortable running in the Divide 2 was in highly technical, mountainous terrain. Although the wide platform extends back to the heel, the low-cut and soft material of the upper doesn't offer the type of ankle stability we need to navigate technical trails. The outsole is made with the same TrailTack rubber as other popular Brooks shoes, but the shallow lugs don't offer the same consistent traction over loose rocks and dirt. But this shoe isn't designed for alpine trail running; it's designed as an entry-level shoe set up to handle easy trails. Bottom line, this is a high-quality option that balances performance and affordability for new trail runners.
Wider platform under the heel increases stability when landing
Tapered profile makes these surprisingly agile
Very light for such a protective shoe
REASONS TO AVOID
Loose-fitting heel pocket
Potential durability issues with the outsole
Very minimal trail feeling
While the comfort and support of maximally cushioned shoes are great, all of that padding can have some serious consequences for stability and agility — two key aspects for mountain runners in particular. HOKA must have been listening to complaints, and their answer is the HOKA Torrent 2 — a stripped-down version of their traditional ultra-running platform that is one of those magical trail shoes. Designers cut the stack height to a more reasonable 23mm in the heel but maintained all of the comfort and support HOKA is known and loved for. The result is a highly responsive, surprisingly agile, yet supremely cushioned trail runner that weighs as much as a minimalist, zero-drop shoe.
There are only a few downsides to this shoe, and they all generally relate to those issues inherent with other maximally cushioned shoes. While the decrease in stack height improves stability, the dense foam in the midsole cuts out a substantial amount of ground sensitivity — a positive for long-distance runners but more of an issue for technical alpine trails. The relatively wide last and shorter heel pocket also makes for a less-than-stable experience when sidehilling or running in off-camber terrain, which again affects the performance of this shoe only in certain circumstances. Our biggest fear is that the durability of the outsole rubber, in particular, may not hold up to as many regular long-distance outings as other ultra-running options on the market. But considering the price point of this top-performing shoe, it may be more than worth lacing up in the Torrent 2 at the starting line of your next ultra-marathon.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it is the mantra Salomon lives by regarding the legendary Speedcross line. The newest iteration, the Salomon Speedcross 6, includes minor design tweaks that improve upon the already great platform without reinventing the wheel. Long known for its aggressive outsole and unrivaled traction, designers modified the rubber compound to improve performance in muddy conditions. They fine-tuned the sagittate lug pattern for an even better grip on mud, rock, and everything in between. This new version is slightly lighter than the previous model, updating the upper to include more mesh for improved breathability. But don't worry, the Speedcross 6 still offers a glove-like fit straight out of the box. We're fast approaching a decade of running in these shoes, and our heart only grows fonder for this beloved trail runner.
Despite our gushing, we still have a few criticisms of this specialty shoe. Our biggest carry-over complaint between the previous version and the Speedcross 6 is the overly-assertive and outdated drop design. With a thick heel counter and 10mm heel-to-toe drop, this shoe is particularly unstable when running downhill. Although the breathability has improved by tweaking the type of mesh over the instep and forefoot, the Speedcross is better deployed during the cold weather months or high-altitude runs through the mountains. On the flip side, with other, less supportive, and less comfortable shoes pushing into its weight class, we no longer complain about the heft of the Speedcross 6. There is no better option for those who like to run off-trail, over snowy mountains, through muddy river bottoms, and up steep, rocky crags.
Fans of the previous version can let out a sigh of relief since the Salomon Sense Ride 4 has only changed a little from its predecessor. These kicks still pack plenty of cushion to keep you bouncing along on the pavement as you make your way to your favorite trailhead. This shoe's Optivibe midsole is road-ready, and the sticky rubber outsole delivers on loose gravel and mud, making the latest version of the Sense Ride our favorite crossover shoe. If your favorite trail runs require a few miles of road running to access, this shoe should be high on your list. Its mesh upper is super breathable, making them great for warm days, and allowing them to dry quickly after any mandatory water crossings. Additionally, we found these shoes refreshingly wide compared to many offerings from Salomon, making them a good option for longer runs when your feet may swell.
Our testers used to low-to-the-ground minimalist or zero drop shoes found the Sense Ride 4 particularly unstable, while folks who mostly run on the road didn't seem to mind the high stack and 8mm drop. Traversing steep hills or picking your way through scree may be difficult in these shoes due to their lack of stability and sensitivity. Still, overall, this shoe is an excellent compromise between cushioning and support for the road and traction for the trails. Their width and breathability keep your tired feet feeling fresh, and these should be on the radar of any runner looking to do some long training runs this summer.
The Altra Superior 5 offers an alternative fit wider than most trail runners and an incredibly soft and supple midsole for excellent sensitivity. These shoes are incredibly comfortable right out of the box, and their width and zero-drop create a very stable platform. They have a comfy burrito-style closure that keeps the feet locked in place, even though the laces don't go very far down the shoe. They also include a pair of removable rock plates that are very thin and flexible and slide in underneath the insoles.
The flip side to lightweight and sensitivity is a lack of protection and support. If you haven't spent much time in a zero drop, minimalist-style shoe, you need to ease in with shorter training runs. Even with the rock plate inserts, miles of downhill pounding will stress the arches, calves, and knees of anyone who hasn't spent much time in this type of shoe. The traction isn't great, so we stick to rolling single track with the Superior 5 and opt for something with more support and better traction for mountain adventures. These are a perfect place to start for folks who want to experiment with the freedom and trail feedback of a zero drop shoe without a high-dollar commitment.
The testing of trail running shoes never really ends, as companies now release new models throughout the calendar year. We continue our tests in all seasons, all over the country, and often have the opportunity to compare the most current models against previous versions of the same shoe. Although our testers choose not to log their miles with a top-ranked GPS watch, they know that they have collectively run thousands of miles while testing upwards of 100 different pairs of trail running shoes over the past decade. Their well-informed opinions are anchored in this experience, and they use that knowledge of what works and what doesn't to analyze these shoes on and off the trail. Our testing process combines thorough research, industry knowledge, and hard-won time spent out on the trail. Our team conducted more than 115 individual tests while comparing these shoes side-by-side and are certain this review will help you find the perfect trail runner to match your needs and budget.
Our in-depth testing process of trail running shoes is spread across six rating metrics:
Foot Protection (25% of overall score rating)
Traction (20% of overall score rating)
Sensitivity (15% of overall score rating)
Stability (15% of overall score rating)
Comfort (15% of overall score rating)
Weight (10% of overall score rating)
This review was spearheaded by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. As a young boy growing up in Colorado, Andy's parents took him for a hike up the popular 14er, Quandary Peak. After huffing and puffing to the summit, he remembers being blown away by seeing a man running down the mountain. Andy soon gave chase, picked up a few pointers from the nice man along the way, and has been a trail runner ever since. He has participated in trail races worldwide and, for a while, even lived as a nomadic dirtbag so that he could run in the mountains every day. Some of his most memorable runs have taken place in the Himalayas of Nepal, the Pyrenees of Spain, and the Grand Canyon. Still, his favorite places to run are the mountain ranges of southern Colorado.
Chiming in from the Sierra foothills of Nevada is longtime reviewer Matt Bento, a lifelong runner since high school. Matt discovered his enthusiasm for trail running one summer while working in Yosemite Valley when temperatures hovered in the 90s, and he decided it was too hot to go climbing. He methodically logged miles and built up his endurance until he could run the Yosemite high camps loop, a 40-mile adventure through the Sierra high country. Ever since, he's found many ridge runs and link-ups throughout Sierra and believes the best runs start in the dark and end with a cheeseburger.
Adding his expert opinion to this already stacked lineup of reviewers is Aaron Rice. A New Englander whose heart was called to the mountains instead of the sea, Aaron has lived (and run) up and down the Rocky Mountains for the past 15 years: from the Flatirons of Boulder, CO, to the Tetons outside of Jackson, WY, and now in the high desert of Santa Fe, NM. As a professional ski patroller and avalanche educator, his favorite time is spent in the high alpine. During the non-snowy months, his regular trail runs often push to elevations above 12,000 feet. Recently, he headed up our reviews for men's barefoot shoes as well.
Analysis and Test Results
During our discussion of testing metrics and shoe performance, please keep in mind that all ratings and comparisons are made in relation to the other tested products. We carefully select and purchase only the most highly rated products, so the competition is fierce. A shoe with a low score can still be a great option depending on your personal needs and budget. Within our in-depth reviews, we break down each metric individually so that you can more easily tune into the pros and cons of each specific trail running shoe. If you are new to trail running and unsure of what you should look for in a shoe, it is always good to take a moment to consider your foot shape, running style, and any athletic goals you may have.
A significant consideration when selecting a pair of trail running shoes is the value of the purchase. While one could simply assume that you get what you pay for, years of testing have proven that this isn't always true. When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are essential: price, performance, and longevity (e.g., durability). Two of these, price and performance, are easily quantifiable and can be compared directly. The Brooks Divide 2 is a particularly valuable option, as it scores nearly as high as some of the top competitors in key metrics yet costs significantly less. While this particular shoe may not appeal to seasoned trail runners, it is a fantastic entry-level option for those interested in trying out trail running for the first time.
The third aspect of value for a trail running shoe, longevity, is not nearly as easy to quantify. Since all pairs of shoes wear out and need to be replaced, finding shoes that can withstand more miles of abuse before disintegrating helps determine that shoe's value. Unfortunately, every runner puts a different amount of strain on their shoes, so their lifetime varies widely. We certainly put each batch of test shoes through the wringer, and durability issues often present themselves early on. But our limited testing period means that we don't have the time to thrash every pair of shoes before publishing our findings.
Trail running is a demanding sport, both on your feet and shoes. We've determined that the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe are how well it protects your foot, and we weight this as 25% of each product's overall score. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of your body, so if you intend to traverse rocky and uneven terrain, then your shoe will need adequate underfoot protection, more akin to a hiking shoe.
While almost all modern running shoes have an outsole and midsole, underfoot protection comes in one of two forms: a rock plate made of a plastic or composite material that adds rigidity to the shoe and absorbs impacts, or in place of that, thick foam cushioning. The most common type of foam used is EVA, which protects the foot from protrusions and absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into the body. Advancements in carbon fiber technology has allowed shoes like the Saucony Endorphin Edge and HOKA Tecton X to incorporate this material into their midsoles, offering a new level of underfoot protection and power output. Perhaps unsurprisingly, foot protection often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we grade for both.
A lesser component of foot protection is how well the upper protects the top and sides of your feet from protrusions like sticks or abrasion by rocks. The ends of the toes are a common point of abuse, as we have all accidentally kicked a rock while bombing down a trail. Rigid toe bumpers go a long way in helping to alleviate this pain, and the Brooks Cascadia 16 offers some of the best toe box protection available. Many manufacturers skimp on upper materials to save weight and offer more breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers as mighty as a bulletproof vest. But if you end up with a beloved shoe whose one downfall is a more delicate upper, you can always wear gaiters to supplement.
A handful of shoes offer superior foot protection compared to the rest of the field. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 does a great job of protecting the undersides of the feet with its PU foam and utilizes a lightweight, breathable, and impressively durable upper. HOKA shoes are known for their thickly stacked shoes, with a midsole foam that is dense and highly absorbent. Although shoes like the HOKA Tecton X and the HOKA Challenger ATR 6 have higher stack heights, the slightly more stripped-down HOKA Torrent 2 still provides superb underfoot protection. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 7 also offer an outstanding amount of foot protection relative to their stack heights. Both the La Sportiva Bushido II and La Sportiva Karacal provide tank-like protection with padded tongues, toe bumpers, and rock plates that make them perfect options for demanding runs in the mountains.
If it weren't for the drastically increased performance when it comes to traction, there would not be much incentive to purchase trail running shoes instead of a pair of the best running shoes for pavement. Based on this assessment, one can understand the argument that traction is one of the most important aspects of a trail running shoe, and we give it a hefty weighting of 20% of the overall score.
Two main factors contribute to a shoe's ability to grip a variety of surfaces well: the type and spacing of lugs and the performance of the rubber used. Deeper, more aggressive lugs grip most surfaces better, especially steep dirt, grass, mud, and snow. More and more trail running shoes reflect this, with lugs becoming increasingly more aggressive across the board. Lugs that are close together do a better job of gripping well on rock and hard dirt surfaces, while lugs that are further apart shed mud faster. Shoes like the Scarpa Spin Ultra, Saucony Peregrine 12, and Salomon Speedcross 6 have 5mm lugs — some of the deepest of any shoes we tested. The lugs on the Spin Ultra are wider and better suited to climbing rock, while the ones on the Peregrine 12 are thin and almost cleat-like, but the Speedcross 6 strikes a nice balance between the two.
The hardness of the rubber also plays a large part in the traction performance of a shoe. Softer rubber, like that on the La Sportiva Karacal or HOKA Torrent 2, tends to be stickier and does a far better job gripping rock, both wet and dry. The downside of soft rubber is that it wears out or, in some cases, rips off, often shortening the shoe's lifespan. In contrast, firmer rubber tends to be more durable and lasts longer but doesn't stick to rock nearly as well. If you run out on snowy and icy trails, you can always add snow grips for an extra kick of traction.
All of the shoes we test offer pretty solid traction, especially on your standard dirt trail, but a few are noteworthy for their excellent grip. The Salomon Speedcross 6 has gigantic protruding rubber lugs spaced far apart for the best grip on mud, grass, and snow. It is also the stickiest of any we tested on rock and wet rock, although the lugs tend to wear down quickly if used too often on hard surfaces. The Brooks Cascadia 16 hits a sweet spot with lug depth, spacing, grip, and durability, proving that a shoe can have an outsole that is both tacky and sturdy.
We define sensitivity by how easy it is to feel the trail beneath your feet as you run. Trail running shoes are designed to protect your feet from abrasion, direct blows from the pointy sides of rocks, or from repeated impacts on your body inherent in the motion of running itself. However, they also need to balance this protection with the foot-to-brain feedback — known as proprioception — that is necessary to run effectively. The shoes that allow for more accurate feedback are awarded more points for sensitivity, and we weigh this metric at 15% of the overall scores.
Before humans started wearing shoes, feet provided a critical link with the world we lived in via their sense of touch. Honoring this evolutionary history, many runners have found that they are better runners when the sensitive link between the feet and ground is maintained, and even more satisfied runners. Perhaps the primal activity of running itself touches the heart a bit deeper when our ancestral connections to the earth are maintained. If this connection is more important to you than the protection of a trail shoe, you may be happier with a barefoot style shoe.
Some shoes, like two of Altra's offerings, the Superior 5 and Lone Peak 6, are stylized after these barefoot-style shoes. They maintain a similar low- or zero-drop profile, wide toe box, and lightweight design without sacrificing the type of underfoot protection we expect from a trail runner. Other burlier mountain runners, like the La Sportiva Bushido II, can't sacrifice support or grip for the sake of sensitivity. But their lower stack height brings your foot closer to the ground, increasing that necessary sense of connection. Several other lightweight options, such as the Topo Athletic MT-4 offer a lower stack height and increased flexibility to improve ground feel and your overall sense of movement.
Trail running takes place over uneven ground, and being able to land and push off from a stable platform is a critical feature of how well a shoe performs. Failure to maintain stability through the running stride will lead to either losing traction and slipping or, even worse, rolling an ankle. Through extensive testing over many years, we have found that stability is impacted mainly by the following four factors: stack height, heel-toe drop, landing platform, and the fit of the upper. We rate this metric at 15% of each product's overall score.
The stack height represents how much material rests between the ground and your foot. In most cases, the larger the stack height, the greater the chance for a rolled ankle — although this threat can be mitigated by having a broader landing platform, as determined by the shape of the bottom of the shoe. A wider platform typically ensures better stability, while a narrower platform is less stable. Heel-toe drop measures the difference in stack height between the heel and the toes. The upper is the third basic component of a shoe, aside from the outsole and midsole, and is what we look at as the "body" of a shoe. A shoe with an upper that firmly holds your foot allows you to land squarely on top of the footbed, minimizing foot movement within the shoe.
Over the last many years, shoe companies, mainly in response to customer demand, have been slowly lowering the average heel-toe drop, which today rests around 4-8mm. Shoes with a substantial drop, like the Salomon Speedcross 6 or Dynafit Ultra 50, are considerably less stable on uneven terrain, especially on the downhill. Shoes with 0mm of drop, like the Altra Superior 5, are known as zero-drop shoes and are usually the most stable but may require a period of adjustment if you're switching from a less neutral shoe.
Another critical factor is the firmness of the midsole. Very stiff shoes tend to be more stable than soft and pliable ones. A flexible shoe that can easily bend in any direction allows your foot to take the shape of what it lands upon, but this is not generally the most stable design. We have accustomed ourselves to walking on flat surfaces, and a shoe that provides this feels more stable, especially if you are stepping on a very uneven surface like rocks and roots. The platform of the versatile Salomon Pulsar Trail ticks all of these boxes, thanks to the innovative design of Salomon's proprietary Energy Blade midsole insert.
Most of our testing for stability happens out on the trail or adventure runs, but we also compare shoes in a more controlled setting by running in each of them one after the other across a steep hillside and straight down a similarly steep slope. Thanks to its wide platform and stiff midsole design, the Brooks Cascadia 16 is one of the most stable shoes for variable terrain — one of the reasons why it has remained a fan-favorite among mountain runners for so many years. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 and Scarpa Spin Ultra scored similarly well in our head-to-head stability testing. The Altra Superior 5 and Topo Athletic MT-4 also earn high marks for their similarly wide, neutral platforms.
Comfort is a challenging criterion to rate because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, and a shoe that feels amazing to one person could be unwearable by another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are just really narrow (or wide) throughout. Some fit perfectly "to size," while others run slightly long or short.
Try Before You Buy
Comfort is probably the single most important criteria when it comes to selecting a running shoe, or any footwear for that matter, and we recommend you take time to find the right fit above all other factors when selecting a pair of shoes.
While it's hard to generalize, many brands are known for serving particular feet better than others. La Sportiva shoes often run small and narrow, while shoes from Salomon tend to run slightly large. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we only weigh it at 15% of a product's final score and attempt to focus more on definable traits that make a shoe more comfortable rather than shape or fit.
Craftsmanship plays a prominent role in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs use a seamless construction that makes them easy to wear sockless (although we prefer to wear socks, we make an exception for comparison testing). Poorly sewn seams or material overlaps inside a shoe can rub and wear against the foot over long distances, creating significant comfort issues. Likewise, shoes that don't do an excellent job of naturally holding the foot in place require you to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit, often leading to discomfort along the top of the foot or front of the ankle joint.
Most of our findings for comfort come from anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also made sure to run through streams and rivers to gauge how much water each pair would absorb and how quickly they could shed that water afterward. While some people don't mind taking the time to sit down and remove their shoes and socks before fording a stream, nobody will do this during a mountain race or if they have to cross a river many times in a day. We prefer to simply let our shoes get wet, cross the creek quickly, and hope the shoes dry quickly as well.
It is no surprise that the shoes with the plushest padding often feel the most comfortable right out of the box. The HOKA Torrent 2 and the Salomon Sense Ride 4 are two such shoes. The newest version of a longtime fan favorite, the Salomon Speedcross 6, is another top contender for comfort, particularly for those who often run in rugged, mountainous terrain. The Brooks Divide 2 is plush and padded, and the Altra Superior 5 is so comfy we found ourselves wearing them for all sorts of non-running activities. Many other shoes featured in this review are also exceedingly comfortable, but we acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to eliminate user bias when assessing comfort.
We love to use weight as a grading metric. It is easily quantifiable and provides a straightforward mathematical tool for comparison. But more importantly, we consider weight because all of life, and virtually every outdoor sport, is a battle against gravity –--the less weight burdening you, the freer you are to move around and push the limits of your sport. When running, you repeatedly pick your feet up to move them forward, so the weight on your feet does matter. However, trail running shoes throw a wrench in this equation when you consider that the features added onto a shoe to improve performance may also contribute to a higher weight, so we give this metric a slightly reduced weighting of only 10% of a product's overall score.
For instance, thicker and burlier midsoles with rock plates are heavier, but they protect the feet more. Cut out too much of this protection, and you will surely end up with a super-light shoe, but you will also have to moderate your speed significantly to avoid damaging your feet. The takeaway is that lighter is better, but only if it doesn't compromise functionality. The shoes described here naturally fall within a spectrum when considering these two factors, and which end of the spectrum you fall on is entirely a personal choice.
The Altra Superior 5, weighing in at only 17.4 ounces for a men's size 9.5 US, is the lightest shoe in our review. What is surprising is that the next lightest shoe, the HOKA Tecton X, has quite the opposite feel of the Superior 5, offering support and cushioning fitting of an ultra-marathon runner. The Saucony Peregrine 12 is also remarkably lightweight and agile, allowing us to run at a pace that pays homage to its namesake falcon.
Running on trails is an excellent way to stay fit and healthy and has just as many benefits for the mind as it does for the body. We love it for the incredible variety, the connection to nature, and most of all, we love the potential for adventure. There are many different styles and types of trail running shoes, many of which are designed for specific purposes. We hope this article has helped you with your decision-making process and that you end up with a pair of shoes that you are happy with and can be a partner on the memorable adventures to come. Happy Trails!
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